I’ve only ever broken a bone once, and it was relatively minor: a fractured wrist due to a sixth-grade softball accident. Even that small fracture was incredibly painful, so I can only imagine the pain experienced by people who suffer severe breaks, requiring surgeries and bone grafts. Grafts are unpleasant, complicated procedures that require a lot of healing time and care. However, like so many other medical procedures, bone grafts may soon become much easier and safer with 3D printing technology.

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[Image: AO Foundation]

Bone grafts, like any other internal transplant, carry risks: rejection, infection, and just general pain and discomfort. There are a variety of situations that require grafts, like complex fractures, diseases or bones that don’t heal correctly after a break. Bone grafts can be used to generate new growth, or act as sort of a glue to fuse bones together. Bone to create the graft can be taken either from the body of a deceased donor, or from the patient himself. Each method presents difficulties: a bone graft taken from another person carries a heightened risk of rejection, but obviously there’s only so much bone that can be taken from within a living patient.

msuThis is where 3D printing comes in. A lot of advancements have been made lately in bioprinting to create living human tissue. The ultimate goal for researchers in the field is to 3D print a functional human organ, using the patient’s own cells to create the base material. Researchers have been working on 3D printing bones for the purpose of grafts and transplants, using biocompatible calcium phosphate powders or material generated from animal bones. Printers have been manufactured specifically for the purpose of bioprinting, and now, researchers from Montana State University and Bacterin International have developed a 3D printer specifically tailored to the 3D printing of bones.

Bacterin

Bacterin, a subsidiary of Xtant Medical Holdings, designs and manufactures medical devices in addition to serving as a tissue bank, so they’re full of experts on grafts and transplants. Several of those experts from their research and development team collaborated with students from Montana State’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering to create a prototype for a 3D printer that can produce customized, resorbable bone grafts for reconstructive procedures.

“We strongly believe that 3D printing has a place in the creation of innovative, regenerative bio-scaffolds,” said Daniel Cox, Bacterin’s Product Development Specialist. “The production of a custom 3D printer capable of printing bone constructs for the medical needs of patients supports our interest in further investigating the possibilities in this space. Additionally, it was a pleasure to work with Montana State University on this project, lending support to our local community and strengthening our relationship with an incredible engineering institution.”

Bacterin provided support for the printer development in the form of a research grant. Further details about the printer have not been released, but this is a significant step forward in the fields of biomaterials and bioprinting. Custom-made bone constructs that can be absorbed by the body will eliminate the need for follow-up surgeries and allow for reconstructions to be performed on larger scales than before.  Let’s hear your thoughts on this new machine in the 3D Bone Printer forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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